Is the ‘time of the assessed essay’ over?

By Phil Race

Let me say at the outset that in many disciplines, there are few problems caused by assessed essays – they may not even be used at all. Before 1791 when it is said that the University of Cambridge introduced the first unseen written examinations to Britain, assessment used to be mostly oral, with face-to-face questioning of students about what they knew and didn’t know. There are many advantages of oral assessment – not least the ability to use ‘probing’ questions to delve deeper into what students can do. Questions such as the following can give us far deeper information about the student’s knowledge status:

  • Why do you think this is the strongest reason?
  • What else could cause this?
  • What do you think is the main weakness of Blogg’s theorem?

Face-to-face we have all the advantages of tone of voice, body language, facial expression, gesture, eye-contact, (all important in everyday human communication) to bring to bear both on asking questions and judging students’ answers. Just about all of these dimensions are completely missed with written answers. And there’s already lots of research showing that with handwritten answers factors such as legibility matter a great deal, despite this having ever-decreased significance in the everyday world around us.

I caused a bit of a stir back in September 2018 when I published in THE a short piece about dropping assessed coursework essays. This was prompted by recent publicity about online essay mills. Phil Newton’s recent research on the extent of “contract cheating” in the academy makes for sobering reading. Based on recent surveys, Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea University Medical School, concludes that as many as one in seven recent graduates across the world may have submitted assessed essays that someone else wrote. But of course here we’re thinking about coursework essays – are essays in exams safe?

Back in 2014 I published a table about the ‘status of essays’ and ‘disadvantages of essays’ relating both to coursework and exams. The status of essays against the criteria of validity, fairness (reliability), whodunit?, real-world relevance and feedback to students fares badly.

  • Validity: rarely good (prose which comes out of a pen in an exam, or through a keyboard in coursework, is rarely the best way of measuring evidence of achievement of intended outcomes).
  • Fairness: poor (a great deal of research evidence is available showing that different markers award very different marks for the same essay).
  • Whodunit? very unsafe, except for essays under exam conditions. Coursework essays can be commissioned and purchased online from well-practised, skilled writers! That said, concerns about Whodunit? regarding coursework essays may be relatively minimal with small groups of students, where tutors regularly talk to students and would usually quickly know if submitted work was not their own.
  • Real world: not close to the sorts of writing relevant to most careers.
  • Feedback to students: can be useful, but usually comes too late, not least because of the length of time it takes to mark a set of essays. There is usually no feedback at all on essays handwritten in exams.

Setting aside the dangers of contract cheating, ten disadvantages of assessed essays can be summed up as follows:

  1. Essays take forever to mark, and marking is unreliable (unfair) anyway, as proved by a great deal of research!
  2. Tends to advantage students who are good at written ‘waffling’!
  3. Unless there are tight word-limits, a longer essay will usually score higher than a shorter one.
  4. Where there is an element of choice (e.g. coursework essays) some choices may prove harder to bring off in practice than others, disadvantaging some students.
  5. In coursework essays, there can be a tendency to copy in (suitably rephrased) sentences from literature sources, without really thinking about the meaning of the elements copied in.
  6. Spelling, punctuation and grammar may disproportionately affect marking.
  7. ‘Coherence’, flow, ease of reading essays disproportionately influences most markers. A ‘smooth’ essay is usually awarded higher marks than a ‘jerky’ one, even if the content of the latter is much better.
  8. Where essays are handwritten in exams, it is not at all easy for students to edit and adjust along the way, e.g. to go back and rephrase the start of the essay appropriately after the main thrust has been addressed.
  9. Handwritten essays in exams are subject to concerns about measuring ‘what comes out of a pen’ rather than ‘what’s in a head’, and are subject to the effects of speed of writing, legibility and so on.
  10. Handwriting an essay in an exam is quite a different game than composing a word-processed coursework essay, so coursework is poor preparation for the exam experience, and feedback on coursework essays may not help exam candidates.

What may be the advantages of using assessed essays? In 2015 I suggested the following are included:

  • Essays allow for student individuality and expression. They are a medium in which the ‘best’ students can distinguish themselves. This means, however, that the marking criteria for essays must be flexible enough to be able to reward student individuality fairly.
  • Essays can provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their own particular ‘take’ on a topic. While this may be an advantage, it is also a disadvantage in that it can turn out to be particularly troublesome to assess students’ own ‘take’ fairly and without prejudice.
  • Essays can reflect the depth of student learning. Writing freely about a topic is a process which can demonstrate understanding and grasp of the material involved.
  • Essay-writing is a measure of students’ written style. It is useful to include good written communication somewhere in the overall assessment strategy. The danger of students in science disciplines, where essays are used less, missing out on the development of such skills is becoming increasingly recognised.
  • Students are relatively familiar with essays. They’ve normally done this sort of writing beforehand, but assessors at university level justifiably grumble that students don’t seem to have had any real training in structuring essays, particularly when it comes to logical argument and coming to a resounding conclusion.

But I also redeveloped the disadvantages:

  • The assessment of essays is well proven to be unreliable. Different markers often award the same essay quite different marks, and students are quick to notice such unfairness. Essays are demonstrably the form of assessment where the dangers of subjective marking are greatest. Essay-marking exercises at workshops on assessment show marked differences between the mark or grade that different assessors award the same essay – even when equipped with clear sets of assessment criteria.
  • The validity of essays as an assessment device remains questionable. Students’ knowledge of the subject is only tested to a limited extent, and technique for essay-writing is tested rather better sometimes.
  • Essay-writing is very much an art in itself. Students from some backgrounds are disadvantaged regarding essay-writing skills as they have simply never been coached in how to write essays well. For example, a strong beginning, a coherent and logical middle, and a firm and decisive conclusion combine to make up the hallmarks of a good essay. The danger becomes that when essays are over-used in assessment strategies, the presence of these hallmarks is measured time and time again, and students who happen to have perfected the art of delivering these hallmarks are repeatedly rewarded irrespective of any other strengths and weaknesses they may have.
  • Essays take a great deal of time to mark. Even with well thought out assessment criteria, it can be difficult to ‘get into one’s stride’ applying a marking scheme, and it is not unusual for markers to need to work back through the first dozen or so of the essays they have already marked, as they become aware of the things that the best students are doing with the questions, and the difficulties experienced by other students.
  • ‘Halo effects’ are significant. If the last essay answer you marked was an excellent one, you may tend to approach the next one with greater expectations, and be more severe in your assessment decisions based upon it.
  • Essays take time to write (whether as coursework or in exams). This means that assessment based on essay-writing necessarily is restricted regarding the amount of the syllabus that is covered directly. There may remain large untested tracts of syllabus.
  • With coursework essays, it is increasingly difficult to guarantee that the essay is the work of the candidate. Ready-made essays can be purchased online on just about any subject, or even directly commissioned. Plagiarism is always a possibility, and there is the need to check authenticity by some other means, such as face-to-face questioning to guarantee that the work is the students’ own. This adds even more time to what is already a high-burden kind of assessment.
  • Traditional ways of giving students feedback on essays are known to be problematic, and rarely worth the time taken. Writing comments on students’ work is particularly troublesome, in that it is well known that students don’t often make good use of the feedback, not least because it often arrives too late, when they’ve already moved on in their studies. Using the comments function in word-processing ‘track-changes’ can be much better, however.

So what am I saying overall? That as an assessment device, essays are unsafe and far too time-consuming for everyone involved. Contract cheating and the work of essay mills is not confined to essays however. Just about any form of submitted written product can be involved, including post-graduate and doctoral theses, so just banning the use of essays is only a first step perhaps. Let me however emphasise that I’m not saying we shouldn’t help students to become good at writing essays – and indeed give students feedback on their developing skills at writing essays. Just that it shouldn’t contribute to assessment.


(Phil Race is a writer and speaker on assessment, feedback, teaching and learning in higher education. He is a visiting professor at Edge Hill and Plymouth universities and emeritus professor at Leeds Beckett University).


Newton, P.

Race, P. (2014) Making Learning Happen: 3rd edition, London: Sage.

Race, P. (2015) The Lecturer’s Toolkit: 4th edition, London: Routledge.

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